So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:53b-56)

Eew.

That, at least, is the general consensus when such a passage is read aloud within a mainline Protestant church service.  Although most Protestants (in my experience) have a somewhat-more-than-passing familiarity with the Bible, and with Jesus’ tendency to speak in allegory, metaphor and parable, this one (pardon the expression) tends to stick in people’s throats.  It just smacks a little too much of cannibalism, it’s just a little too graphic.  Especially when this reading is followed by a service of Holy Communion, this is a reading that tends to give people the willies. 

Now, I come from a tradition in which we’re not even talking about consubstantiation, let alone trans-substantiation.  We are so low-church as to regard the sacrament of Communion as a merely symbolic gesture, totally metaphorical, totally removed from the actual Body and Blood of Jesus.  Bread and grape juice, thank you very much, we’re nice, normal, politically-correct, social-justice-oriented, twenty-first-century Christians.  No mysticism here, please.  No flesh-eating, no blood-drinking.  No chewing on Jesus’ body.  Because, really, yuck.

This shouldn’t surprise me.  These are the same people, after all, who sit quietly in semi-uncomfortable wooden pews, speaking only when spoken to, listening politely and attentively with well-bred decorum.  This is the Congregational tradition, brought into this nation by the early Puritan settlers, people who placed great emphasis on the training of the mind; somewhat less emphasis on the training of the soul… and who ignored, to the best of their ability, the needs of the body.  These were people to whom the two Protestant sacraments – Baptism and Communion – were seen as spiritual nourishment, only peripherally embodied.

Which does us a rather large disservice, if you think about it.

Because Jesus wasn’t a Puritan.  Jesus loved bodies.  

Jesus fed bodies.  Five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.  He allowed his disciples to pluck and eat on the Sabbath.  He took the time, on the last night of his life, to sit and eat with his disciples.  

Jesus touched bodies: dirty, poor, aching bodies.  Sick, contagious, bloody bodies.  Jesus gave himself, his own body clad only in a towel, to the intimate act of washing the feet of each of his disciples.  Jesus touched the untouchables, the dehumanized, the unclean: bodies that had not been touched by another human being in days, weeks, months, years.  

Have you ever gone a day without being touched by another human?  How long do you think you would survive?

On Christmas, we celebrate the embodiedness of Jesus: the fact that he was born, as we all were: emerging from a human body, contained within a human body.  We are reminded that Jesus was as human as the rest of us.  Indeed, this is central to our understandings of presence, of justice, of suffering: we are the servants of one who has served, of one who has experienced our embodied life, our human pains and sorrows.  We are followers of a God who can empathize, who has literally walked as one of us.  We worship one who had a body, who loved bodies, whose teachings consistently emphasized that our relationship to God is relational: body to body.  

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  -Matthew 25:35-36, 40b 

In our Congregational – Puritan, Calvinist – system, the preaching of the Word is elevated above all sacramental worship practices.  Go into any old New England church, and check out the height of the pulpit: many will quite likely give you a nosebleed.  But in good human fashion, we neglect to remember that the word that we preach is only the merest echo of the original Word.  In good Puritan fashion, we decline to recognize that the Word put on flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).

The Word put on flesh.  Even the Word had a body.

Jesus loved bodies, and cared for bodies, but he gave up his own.  Not because bodies are irrelevant, but because they are central to our faith and practice.  Otherwise, it would have been no sacrifice.  Jesus laid bare his own flesh, his own brokenness, precisely so that we might be fed, so that we might be made whole.  Precisely so that we may feast upon the abundance of God; so that we may sink our teeth into something rich and precious and nourishing.  

Take and eat: incorporate the God incarnate into your own flesh.  

Take and eat: be made whole in body, as well as mind and spirit.  

Take and eat, that the living Christ might work within you and through you, that you might break bread, and say to another; “Here.  Take this and eat.”  

Advertisements